Pope Francis Arrives in Abu Dhabi for Historic Visit

The Holy Father said the Feb. 3-5 apostolic voyage, which includes an interreligious gathering and large open-air Mass, will be ‘short’ but ‘important.’

Pope Francis arriving in Abu Dhabi.
Pope Francis arriving in Abu Dhabi. (photo: Vatican Media)

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis has arrived in the United Arab Emirates’ capital of Abu Dhabi, beginning the first ever visit by a pope to the Arab peninsula and Francis’ sixth journey to a Muslim-majority nation.

The papal plane touched down shortly before 10pm local time, soon after which the Holy Father was welcomed by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and a number of children dressed in traditional attire, who presented him with flowers. 

After greeting others in the welcoming party including Ahamad al-Tayyib, the grand imam of the renowned Islamic Al-Azhar university in Cairo, the Pope was then driven to the Al Mushrif Palace, a state residence reserved for important visitors.

On the plane from Rome, the Pope said his Feb. 3-5 trip will be “short” but “important,” and noted that it had unusually rained in Abu Dhabi that morning. 

“There they think that’s a sign of a blessing,” the Pope said. “Let’s all hope it is.” 

In a statement, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed welcomed both Pope Francis and Ahmad Al Tayyeb to the UAE.

The statement said the crown prince expressed great happiness and that the visit is especially important in promoting the values of fraternity, peace and peaceful coexistence. He added that the visit is also significant because it reinforces ties of friendship and cooperation between the UAE and the Vatican.

The Pope has said this visit, and his trip to Morocco at the end of March, are “important opportunities” to advance Catholic-Muslim dialogue during the 800th anniversary of the historic meeting between Saint Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Malik al-Kāmil.

The Vatican says Francis is making efforts to reach out to the Islamic world in view of the hard challenges caused by Islamist violence.  

The Church’s theme for the visit, to “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” taken from the famous prayer thought by some to have been written by St. Francis of Assisi, is the “Pope’s intention in going to the Arab country,” the Vatican has said.  

The Vatican is also hoping the visit will help relax restriction on religious freedom in the region, in particular with regards the building of churches, especially in neighboring Saudi Arabia where churches are forbidden. 

It is also hoping for more churches to be allowed to be built in the UAE, and the Gulf region in general, to cope with the large immigrant Catholic population there. 

But moving beyond hopes of peace with the Islamic world, the Pope has — on the day of his departure for Abu Dhabi — already confronted a challenging political situation in the region: the ongoing war in Yemen, south of the UAE.

The UAE is accused of perpetuating the conflict for national interests, although its stated aim is to restore Yemen’s legitimate government and help build a stable and prosperous country. As a coalition partner, Saudi Arabia has also played a key role in the country’s war which began in 2015.  

After reciting the Angelus an hour before his flight was due to leave, the Pope said he was following “with great concern” the resulting humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The war has caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with about 22 million of the nearly 29 million people in the country in need of some humanitarian assistance, according to CNA.

“The population is exhausted by the long conflict and many children suffer from hunger, but cannot access food,” the Pope said. “The cry of these children and their parents rises before God.” 

In off the cuff remarks after praying a Hail Mary for the people of Yemen, he added: “Pray hard, because there are children who are hungry, who are thirsty, who have no medicine, and are in danger of death. We take this thought home with us.”

He also appealed in his message to those involved and the international community to “urgently encourage compliance with the agreements reached, to ensure the distribution of food and to work for the good of the population. 

“I invite everyone to pray for our brothers in Yemen,” the Pope said. 

Observers noted how, by mentioning the situation in Yemen just before the trip, the Pope was able to minimize the risks of offending his hosts. 


Program Ahead

After a formal welcome ceremony tomorrow at noon and an official visit to the crown prince, the Pope will have a private meeting with members of the Muslim Council of Elders in Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, followed by what’s being billed as the key event of the visit: a “Human Fraternity” meeting with interreligious leaders.

Notable among those attending will be the grand imam of Al-Azhar, whom the Pope has met on previous occasions in Rome, and in Cairo in 2017. Al-Azhar is the highest seat of learning for Sunni Muslims.

On Tuesday, the Holy Father will celebrate Mass at which up to 135,000 faithful are expected. The Mass will be unprecedented for the UAE where Christian worship is normally only allowed in churches.


Iconic Gift 

During his brief inflight remarks, the Pope said he wanted to give the journalists on board cards with the image of an icon that had been made at the ecumenical monastery of Bose. 

The image, which was distributed at World Youth Day in Panama, was of a young monk carrying an old man on his shoulders. It signifies the “dialogue between the young and the old,” the Pope said, adding that it is “a challenge of our time.” 

On the reverse of the icon card were the following words of Francis:

“In this icon of the monastery of Bose is a young monk who carries an old man on his shoulders. Bringing forward the dreams of the old…A young man who is able to take upon himself the dreams of the old, and bring them to fruition.”